When a plane crashes, one of the first things that investigators do is to try to find the flight data recorder or "black box". It allows investigators to determine what may have gone wrong and caused the crash. Black boxes in cars can function in about the same way.††
In the United States, there are approximately 190 million drivers. If you are driving a car manufactured by GM or Saturn, you could be carrying around an event data recorder (EDR) and not even know it. The EDR senses various conditions in and around the vehicle and that can then be obtained by various individuals for various purposes.
the following data:
- Vehicle speed (five seconds before impact)
- Engine speed (five seconds before impact)
- Brake status (five seconds before impact)
- Throttle position (five seconds before impact)
- State of driver's seat belt switch (On/Off)
- Passenger's airbag (On/Off)
- IR Warning Lamp status (On/Off)
- Time from vehicle impact to airbag deployment
- Ignition cycle count at event time
- Ignition cycle count at investigation
- Maximum velocity for near-deployment event
- Velocity vs. time for frontal airbag deployment event
- Time from vehicle impact to time of maximum velocity
- Time between near-deploy and deploy event (if within five seconds)
Using this data, insurance agents and police officers can reconstruct the events leading up to a crash. Black boxes have been in all GM cars since 1999 and in many other makes and models since 1996. (See below to see if your car comes standard with one.)
EDRs were originally intended to record what caused air bags to open. The data that triggers the air bag often tells the story of what happened in the seconds before a crash.
An even more advanced version of the EDR is being tested by Ford in police cars. This model sends data to 911 dispatchers in the event of a crash. It even allows dispatchers to talk to the occupants of the vehicle after the crash and relay the exact location of and number of passengers in the car.
Since these new black boxes are networked to the dispatchers, privacy issues rise even as automotive executives tout the safety improvements afforded by the device. The big issue: tracking. Who monitors the data sent from each car?
David Sobel from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says he fears citizens will lose control of that data. "The bottom line is, the user, in this case the driver, really needs to be in control of what kind of information is collected, how long it's maintained, and who is going to have access to it," he said.
Judy Bridgeman-Veal, a spokeswoman for the Ford Motor Company, disputes Sobel's concerns. "This is not a constant monitoring system," she said. "Unless there is an accident, there will not be any tracking." What we wonder is how these cars begin tracking what happened to the car before the accident if they donít start tracking until after the
Even though auto companies insist privacy will be protected, there are currently no standards in place. For more on EDRs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a comprehensive guide on its website. †
One chief concern is what if the information in the black box isn't accurate. How would you know? If the radio in the car breaks, a light doesn't go on, or the engine starts making loud noises, you know immediately. If the black box starts misreporting your speed, or doesn't record the fact that you hit the brake, the experts' reliance is placed on faulty information.
The Value of Information
Another big concern is that there is no way in which you can tell if an automobile manufacturer started recording other data like where you go and what you do. Though there is no information that this is happening now, adding GPS tracking would be quite simple.
Though this may sound a little paranoid, there is a very high dollar marketing value to determining information about where certain people go and what they do. Simply adding an inexpensive global positioning device would track everywhere you went and this data could be made available to anyone willing to pay the price for it. You may not have any secrets but do you really want your whereabouts being made available to mega-marketing companies?